Sunday, March 6, 2011

Satellite images: 300 burned buildings in Sudan

JUBA, Sudan (AP) -- Satellite images from a group backed by actor George Clooney showed some 300 buildings burned to the ground from a militia attack in a contested area of Sudan, the group said Monday.

Fighting elsewhere in Southern Sudan was reported to have killed more than 50 people.

The buildings were burned in a village near the town of Abyei, a disputed area between north and south Sudan that is the most contentious issue between the two regions. Abyei has seen a wave of attacks in recent days that have killed more than 100 people and sent tens of thousands of people fleeing the area.

The Satellite Sentinel Project said its latest images confirm the "widespread and systematic targeting of civilian infrastructure across the Abyei region."

"Village burning has caused tens of thousands to be displaced, unknown numbers of civilian casualties, and the deliberate destruction of at least three communities," said Clooney.

In Washington. U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the disclosure "really doesn't change what we already know. We have known for some time about the dangers of the unresolved situation in Abyei. We've obviously known in recent days and weeks about the clashes among the parties there."

The latest images document an attack Saturday on the village of Tajalei. Previous images from the group showed huts burned in two other villages.

"If this violence is left unchecked, it could put the entire north-south peace process at risk," Clooney said.

Southern Sudan voted in January to secede from the north, but the violence in Abyei underscores the challenges still facing the leaders of north and south before the oil-rich south declares independence on July 9. Both sides are laying claim to the region.

Charles Abyei, speaker of the parliament in the Abyei area, said after the first two villages were attacked, rumors spread that Tajalei would be next, so civilians fled. Abyei blamed the attacks on the Popular Defense Forces, a militia that was used as a proxy force by the northern Sudanese military through the two-decade-long north-south civil war.

"The place was empty and these elements of the Popular Defense Forces came and found nobody except one man who was mentally sick," said Abyei. "They killed him and they burned down the whole village."

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey reported in October that it had confidential military documents confirming that the northern military has armed members of the Misseriya cattle-herding population since the signing of the 2005 north-south peace deal.

The group said the strategy of combining "regular and irregular forces" to forcibly clear the Ngok Dinka, a tribe native to Abyei, from their homes was used through the civil war and more recently in the separate conflict in the western region of Darfur.

The latest images from the Satellite Sentinel Project appear to confirm that type of activity, with images showing 300 scorched buildings. The group said that "roughly two-thirds of those buildings appear to be consistent with civilian residential structures, known as tukuls."

A round of north-south talks over Abyei began in Khartoum, Sudan's capital, on Monday, but officials from Abyei are not optimistic.

"We are not expecting anything to come out of the talks," Charles Abyei said. "If Khartoum was serious they would not have supplied the whole areas of northern Abyei with arms. They have the intention of occupying the whole area of Abyei to try to control it."

Sudan President Omar al-Bashir and Southern Sudan President Salva Kiir are scheduled to meet with former South African President Thabo Mbeki next week for talks on Abyei. Mbeki hosted north-south talks on economic issues in Ethiopia last week. The talks did not result in any concrete agreements.

In a separate region in the south, Upper Nile state, fighting on Sunday was reported to have killed more than 50 people, though the two sides gave differing accounts.

The south's army spokesman, Col. Philip Aguer, said militia forces loyal to the rebel leader George Athor clashed with military forces, killing 56 people. Aguer did not specify which side the deaths were on.

A spokesman for Athor, Dok James Tuok, said 13 of Athor's men and 52 southern military forces were killed. Tuok said that Athor's forces were declaring a cease-fire and called on the army to do the same.

Aguer dismissed that call, saying that Athor violated a previous cease-fire.

"Definitely the military operations are ongoing since they violated the cease-fire," said Aguer. "(Athor) violated the cease-fire. We don't have any cease-fire with him."

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